Saturday, March 17, 2012

Homing Into Solitude

For many years, I have pursued holy solitude in every place except home.

On long and lonesome weekends at Cornell University, when I first began to hunger for it, I would retreat to libraries, the campus art museum, or, strangely, the campus book store. Sometimes I could find it in my dormitory room, but usually I ended up feeling only isolated and withdrawn. As I ventured more into downtown Ithaca, I could begin to taste it on the Commons.

As I began to follow my faith I learned that you cannot practice solitude without community. Once I began to care about my neighbors, I found I could find holy solitude in the sacred spaces the neighbors in my Christian community shared. And so church became a haven for me, beginning with the sanctuary and parish complex of Our Lady of Grace in my hometown. I could also find solitude on long walks around the small town parks or public school grounds, either by myself or with my kid brother.

The more I let other people into my heart, as God was enabling me to do, the more space opened within me for God to dwell alone in secret. As I came to understand this, I resolved to spend less time at home, meaning not only my parents' house, where I was living, but also the town in which I grew up. So I left Babylon and New York for Baltimore, where I lived for two years in the quest to live a more perfect solitude, widening the heart in community. The story of those years is full of sadness and regrets, of maturity won the hard way; it is a story of solitude lost early and recovered late.

I returned to New York for a year and felt like a stranger to my native land, because I knew now where I had to go, and I was determined to get there. When I got to Boston, every door opened, and I knew the place as my own. The important thing to understand is that the city itself was my sanctuary and not any of the particular places I lay my head. I moved nine times over my six-year sojourn in Boston, with some of the places I lived more conducive to solitude-in-community than others. But that magic feeling never felt as strong at home as it did on Boston Common, either celebrating Eucharist with Ecclesia Ministries or just walking through the park; on the downtown streets, marching with immigrants and workers and pacifists; in the classrooms of the Boston seminaries and theological schools; and in the chapels, sanctuaries, and temples of a hundred communities of the faithful, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist, Sikh. Even my office at the Massachusetts Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, a swarm during the day, could become a hermitage in the evening.

However, the places where I lay my head were increasingly becoming arid and oppressive. They were no-places. And I rarely wanted others to see where I stayed, much less invited them. A place where you do not care to rest your body and soul, or let others rest, is a place God does not care to be, either. Things had to change in a way more radical than a change of address could accomplish.

Flash forward to the present, nearly seven months into postulancy. Things are changing. I am beginning to discover how to practice solitude at home by finding comfort in practicing community at the household level.

On many free days like this Saturday, instead of venturing into Manhattan or downtown Brooklyn, as would be easy and preferable for me to do, I have remained at St. Michael Friary, reading, writing, exercising, or, more recently, baking. Having a chapel down the hallway and newly ingrained habits of community prayer make it possible at long last to pray well at home, and pray often, even when we do not have to gather as a fraternity. And though I do hide away in my room at times, I also let myself be present in the common areas of the house, such as the kitchen, and be available for conversation with the brothers.

I have commented on this before, but to me it needs repeating. This feels like an important development in my formation. This feels like a good thing, and a right thing. And a timely emergence, with the intentional stability of novitiate sharpening into view from the shimmering horizon.

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